I love snow. Mind you, I don’t particularly enjoy driving in it. But getting out in the snow, taking pictures in the snow, walking among trees in the snow, and, most of all, chucking snow at other people, is one of the things which make Winter more or less my favourite season.
Part of that is my life-long addiction to snow-fiction. And, as that addiction is life-long, it began as a child, and therefore features more children’s books than not.
More than any other snow book, The Box of Delights gets in among the snow and makes it the heart of the story. Falling snow, melting snow, floods after snow (I never really got that until I started living near a river in the country), and the unleashing of the snows of the four winds to cover the landscape in such drifts as have not been seen since the wolves ran. John Masefield, who lived not so far away in Ledbury, and wrote very much about the landscape he knew, manages to combine a constant childlike simplicity which grows on the reader as you get older with penetrating observation of local people and customs, alongside one of the most adventurous stories you will find in children’s writing. The very last two pages are a disappointment, and I usually don’t read them, for reasons set out by JRR Tolkien in Tree and Leaf (though he doesn’t reference this story).
The White Witch and the endless winter, with the arrival of Christmas (long kept out) and the thawing into sudden spring have been with me since I was a small child. My mother read them to us, and later I read the story for myself, and have done again and again over the years. Potent as symbol, allegory, and just a cracking good story for any age, the first Narnia book turned retiring (and, by all accounts, rather cantankerous) academic C S Lewis into an international literary superstar. In my view this is one of the best books ever written. It comes in at number two because the snow is better in the Box of Delights.
You can take your Little Mermaids. For me, The Snow Queen is by far the best story that Hans Christian Andersen ever told. A novella rather than a novel, the tale of Gerda’s journey through the wilderness to rescue Kay has been told, retold, filmed and refilmed, and will probably carry on being so while books last. This is much more advanced and literary than most of Andersen’s tales, and this shows more than anything else in the resonance it has in other literature. John Masefield had already chosen the name ‘Kay’ for his protagonist in The Midnight Folk, so he clearly did not lift it from The Snow Queen, although the resonance of name may well have inspired him to write about snow. The scene where Abner Brown causes the all of the drawstrings of the bag of storms to be opened, though, it lifted straight from the Snow Queen, and many other elements remind us strongly of the earlier book. Likewise, the White Witch of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe clearly shows her debt to the Snow Queen, and the way in which she tries to draw Edmund into her world at her castle strongly reminds us of the way the Snow Queen tries to fix Kay in her world.
Narnia again for number 4. You may have noticed that as the Narnia books go on — in their original writing order, rather than the ‘chronological’ order which is popular today — the print gets smaller. The same thing happened for the first three Harry Potter books, though the publishers gave up on book 4 and clearly decided that Rowling was not going to write short books in future. The reality is that CS Lewis was writing longer, more grown-up books, but the publishers were keeping them to the same format. The Silver Chair is book 4 in the original order. It’s the most adventurous of all the stories, and the first to revolve around three characters who are none of them particularly likeable (you may wonder what it would have been like to hang out with the rather oversweet Pevensies between books 1 and 2). The central part is full of bitter weather, and Lewis manages to communicate the awfulness of being cold for a very, very long time better than any of the other books on this list. It’s number 4 because much of the book is actually not set in snow (for example, the parts underground).
Forgive me for including this one, as only a very small part of it is actually set in snow (“war troubled him not so much but that winter was worse…”), but the central winter journey guides Sir Gawain’s whole (but ultimately foolish) desire to stay in the warmth of the castle. This is the great non-Chaucerian masterpiece of medieval English. It’s by far the cleverest and most complete of all the Arthurian stories (I’m really not that much of a fan of Mallory), and, to me, stands up as one of the most perfectly plotted stories of all time.
Setting science-fiction on a planet which only has one kind of weather has a long and honourable tradition. Dune, for example, is set on an entirely desert planet and only occasionally bothers going anywhere else. Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece, though, — and quite possibly the most masterful science-fiction work by anyone — is not just set on a snowy planet. The planet’s name is ‘Winter’ (or Gethen, to the locals), and winter is pretty much all you get. With characteristic insight, Le Guin gets far more out of exploring what it would be like to live on an entirely winter planet (populated by hermaphrodites who have an ability to see the future at times) than Herbert ever does with Dune, although she doesn’t quite get into the snow in the way that some of the authors higher up the list manage.
Most of the Fellowship of the Ring isn’t about snow, but the passages which are, are just magnificent. In The Hobbit Tolkien revealed himself as a master of miserable weather, pointing out that the good times are rarely worth writing about.
#8 Far North
I came across Far North through the Amazon Vine programme, which provides things for budding reviewers to review. I have to say I’ve not been that impressed with the most of the fiction I encountered through Vine, but this one is a gem. Marcel Theroux’s novel is about a post-semi-apocalyptic community which has died down to just one person in Siberia, and that person’s journey and adventure across the wastes. It really does keep you surprised right to the last moment, and is thoroughly enjoyable. And very, very cold.
The sixth Cadfael novel by Ellis Peters is a tour-de-force of winter writing. The mini-ice age of the middle-ages links the period inexorably with winter in my mind, and this is by far the best modern evocation of it that I’ve come across.
#10 The Skifter
This one’s rather cheeky, I know, but this is the book I wrote a couple of years ago about an early fall of snow in Birmingham, and the way it leads a teenager into winter a hundred, three hundred and nine hundred years before. You can download the first half for free, and, if you like it but are broke, email me and I’ll let you have the second half for free as well. See if you spot some of the references and echoes of other books on this list.
Missing in action:
There are lots of other snow books that didn’t make it onto my list. White Fang and other north American novels never really impinged on my conscience as a child (we weren’t allowed to watch ITV either). Dr Zhivago is great, but I couldn’t quite get into the coldness of it. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer — or the bit that was translated and excerpted into a school poetry book — was one of my main inspirations for studying Old English later in life, and Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen was a major inspiration for studying Old Icelandic, though it doesn’t talk about snow as much as you might think. Finally, if you are up for a winter chill, try reading through the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. As my Anglo Saxon tutor John Kiteley pointed out, the Saxons measured the years in winters, and every entry begins with a number, and then the word ‘Winters’.
By the way, the links on this page mostly go to Amazon. If you were to buy from them following those links, it would defray some of the costs of this site. I’m only putting this bit in because it’s now part of their terms and conditions. Just so you know.